30 May 2015

Orfeo, Then and Now

This year I was a happy finalist in the BBC Radio 3 and NCEM Young Composers Award, for which I had the extraordinary opportunity of having a short work performed by the Dunedin Consort (one of the best period ensembles in the UK; their recording of the Mozart Requiem is the best you'll ever hear).

The composition task was to set a text that had previously been used by Monteverdi and I opted for an English translation of a scene from his 1607 LOrfeo in which Proserpine pleads with Pluto to let Eurydice leave the underworld. This is the description of the piece that I gave for the concert programme:
This scene from Act IV of LOrfeo was tempting to set because its events are so central: Proserpine pleads with Pluto to let Orfeo rescue his lost love and Pluto sets the terms on which we know Orfeo will fail. As such, I wanted to write music with enough drama for it to be played in isolation while at the same time suggesting that we find ourselves in the middle of a bigger story. More than this, however, I was drawn by the possibility of showing how Proserpine perhaps shares in Eurydices plight, as her character otherwise tends to be overlooked.

Before the events of this tale, Proserpine becomes Plutos wife only after he forcibly abducts her (and although Eurydice canonically enters the underworld after being bitten by a snake, in the Middle English Sir Orfeo, she is abducted too), yet Proserpine speaks to Pluto with utmost respect and admiration. She strikes me as being like the Eurydice we find in Rainer Maria Rilkes unsettling version of the story: so filled with her vast death that she has forgotten her earlier life and is too encumbered by the strangeness of her existence to notice what has been taken from her.

In this setting, I strove to invert that image: here, both women yearn for life back in the world above and while Proserpines subjection means that she could never admit that she wishes she hadnt been abducted, the music hints at a secret nostalgia. When she pleads with Pluto to allow Eurydice to return to thejoys of waking days, the implication is that she would return to those joys herself if only there was someone to rescue her.